The Rev. George Clements, a Chicago priest who caused a stir in the Roman Catholic church when he adopted a child in the early 1980s, and whose civil rights and social justice activism inspired a television movie about his career, died on Monday at a hospital in Indiana. He was 87.
The Archdiocese of Chicago confirmed the death but did not specify the cause. The Rev. Michael Pfleger, another Chicago priest, said Mr. Clements had had a stroke and heart attack in recent weeks.
Mr. Clements was devoted to the civil rights movement as well as his faith, and he worked hard to advance black causes. He marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago, Alabama and Mississippi; he also found common cause with the Black Panther Party in Chicago in the 1960s. He helped create programs, like the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus, to support African-Americans within the church.
Mr. Clements told Contemporary Newsmakers, a biographical guide, in 1985 that he thought such internal organizations were necessary because “I felt very lonely, and felt like I was really kind of lost in a sea of whiteness in the midst of all the furor that was taking place in the civil rights movement, and it was a beautiful thing to find kindred souls around the country that felt the same way as I.”
Mr. Clements also started programs to help drug addicts and incarcerated people and their families. In 1980 he created One Church One Child, a program to help Catholic churches find adoptive parents for orphaned black children. That year Mr. Clements announced that he intended to adopt a black child himself to dramatize the problem, drawing national media coverage and creating consternation in the church.
The Associated Press reported in 1980 that the Chicago Archdiocese issued a statement that praised Mr. Clements’s character but said, in part, “It may be more appropriate for a priest to leave adoptions to those who are less encumbered by pastoral responsibilities, to those who can provide a true home.”
In 1981 the church agreed that adoption would not violate Mr. Clements’s vows, and he adopted a 13-year-old boy, Joey, from an orphanage. “I had given up hope of finding a family,” Joey said, according to an article in The New York Times. “I am very proud to have him as my dad.”
Mr. Clements said: “If the church had blocked me, I would not have defied them. But they didn’t. Thank God they didn’t.”
In time Mr. Clements adopted three more sons. His life and work were chronicled in “The Father Clements Story,” a 1987 television movie starring Louis Gossett Jr.
George Harold Clements was born to Samuel and Aldonia (Peters) Clements on Jan. 26, 1932, in Chicago, where his father worked as a city auditor.
In 1945, Mr. Clements became the first African-American to graduate from the Chicago Archdiocese’s Archbishop Quigley Preparatory Seminary. He completed bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of St. Mary of the Lake seminary before he was ordained in 1957.
Mr. Clements was accused in August of having sexually abused a minor in 1974 while he was pastor of Holy Angels parish on the South Side of Chicago. He denied the allegation, but Cardinal Blase J. Cupich asked him to step aside from the ministry while the charges were investigated.
A spokesman for the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services said the allegation was classified as “unfounded” after the department’s investigation, The Chicago Sun-Times reported. The archdiocese, however, said its own investigation was “still ongoing.”
He is survived by his sons, Friday, Stewart, St. Anthony and Joseph; a sister, Ynez Gilmer; 15 grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.
The New York Times contributed reporting.
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